Spiritual but Not Religious?

If you’ve heard it once, you’ve probably heard it a thousand times. It’s a beloved Americanism, an unquestioned cultural refrain, a true motto of the modern age, and it goes something like this: “I’m spiritual. I’m just not very religious.”

Rough translation: “I believe in something beyond the physical substance that makes up my body and the material world around me. I just don’t like to constrain that belief or force it to conform to the established dogma or practice of a particular religious structure.”

Think of the person who experiences something transcendent while enjoying nature. Or the person who feels an otherworldly connection with deceased loved ones. Or the person who suspects that some karmic force is keeping the world in order. These spiritual-but-not-religious folks probably don’t go to a church (or a mosque or a temple). But they’re not ready to let go of the idea that there’s something more than meets the eye—something beyond mere matter and molecules.

Having spent my whole life in the church, I’ll admit that this sentiment can be compelling. I’ve seen the rigidity and monotony of “religion” first-hand. I’ve known how hollow it can feel to jump through the hoops and go through the motions, just because it’s what you’re supposed to do. On such days, the idea of liberating one’s spirituality from the prison of religion is an attractive proposition.

But as appealing as it might be to jettison the forms and the structures and the traditions, I can’t bring myself to do it. Sure, these things can be easily distorted and abused (and as a result, I suspect there’s a whole lot of dead religion out there that’s hardly worth preserving). But at the end of the day, naked spirituality is entirely insufficient and unfulfilling. It can wonder and inquire and speculate all day long. But it can never seem to get to a place of meaningful belief. The kind of belief you can sink your teeth into. The kind of belief you can form your whole life around. Spirituality without religion is all questions and no answers.

I love how John Carmichael describes the insufficiency of religion-less spirituality in his provocative memoir Drunks and Monks:

Declaring oneself spiritual is of the same character as declaring oneself corporeal. So what you’re spiritual? You’ve got a spirit as sure as you’ve got a body and a mind so of course you’re spiritual. And corporeal. And intellectual. Now what about it? It would seem that’s where religion just begins to speak—at the acknowledgement of spirit—just as medicine and nutrition and fitness begin to speak about the body as a necessity merely of its welfare. One doesn’t end the discussion of the body by declaring that they have one. So what? And neither should someone declare themselves spiritual without considering the implications of just what it is the spirit may need.

Carmichael is a Roman Catholic, so his understanding of “religion” is certainly different than mine. But on this point, he hits the nail squarely on the head. Spirituality isn’t the destination; it’s the starting point. To identify yourself as spiritual is to recognize that you were made for something more. And that’s good. But wouldn’t you want to know what that “something” actually is? Wouldn’t you want to find the answers to the questions that your spirituality asks?

This is precisely where religion comes into play. It’s within the doctrinal concreteness of religion that spirituality finds its proper place. And not just any religion, but the cross-shaped religion of biblical Christianity. Whereas mere spirituality leaves us grasping in the dark for we know not what, the gospel puts something tangible in front of us. We may not like it. We may find it too old and rugged for our tastes. But there it stands nonetheless, inviting us to cling to it with all of its bloodstains and splinters.

If it’s vibrant spirituality we want, we won’t find it by shedding our religion. We’ll find it within our religion—or rather, behind our religion—where Jesus stands as our eternally sufficient Savior and Lord. It’s only in union with him and fellowship with his church that human spirituality can truly flourish.

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